Is a Steady State Economy Possible?


Xeric Garden in spring

Gail Tverberg, whose blog “Our Finite World” is one of my favorites (along with Juan Cole’s “Informed Comment”), recently wrote a blog titled “There is No Steady State Economy (except at a very basic level).” She contends that while a steady state economy is an interesting concept, it is not a viable because the level at which we could actually achieve a steady state is so low. Even several notches below today’s economy is still not sustainable. A true “steady state economy” would seem to mean a decline at least to the industrial level of about the year 1750. Tverberg concludes, “those wanting a steady state are dreaming for something that can never happen. Decline is pretty much inevitable.”

I agree with most of this post; what is puzzling to me is the idea that the steady state economy can never happen. It’s true that the scale of a steady state economy would be much less than that of our current economy.  It is arguable that a steady state economy could never be reached, so I do not necessarily disagree with her. But her blog would have been more helpful if she had actually discussed these arguments. Let’s consider some of these arguments for or against the thesis that “a steady state economy is possible.”

In favor of the thesis are Tverberg’s own statements. If you think about it, the statements “decline is inevitable,” “a steady state economy can never happen,” and “a steady state economy can never happen (except at a basic level)” are all contradictory. If decline is inevitable, then no matter how low the level needed for a steady state economy, we will inevitably get there; and if a steady state economy can happen at a basic level, then a steady state economy can happen.

What’s the problem with 1750? Are we supposed to just throw up our hands and give up upon hearing this date? Mozart was born in 1756, and wrote two operas which are quite pretty: Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. Mozart doesn’t “prove” that a steady state economy is feasible.  But such a world would not be a gray, listless, dull world which is not worth living. Further, there are several substantial improvements we could make on 1750 which don’t require fossil fuels, such as antibiotics, anesthetics, basic nutrition and hygiene, and birth control.

Here are some scenarios which suggest we could approach or reach this level, perhaps rather quickly.

(1) Tverberg gave a talk at the 2009 ASPO-USA Conference and has written in other places positing a scenario in which oil production plummets as a result of a worldwide financial crash, within the space of about three years, to about 1/3 of its current value.

(2) James Kunstler, in his science fiction novel World Made By Hand, posits a disastrous economic and political collapse. He envisions a world just about 10 or 20 years from now in which all fossil fuel use has ceased (along with a functioning central U. S. government).

(3) The science fiction novel The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi) postulates a world of about 100 years from now (the date is unclear) in which oil production has ceased. He posits a slow decline which humans fight every step of the way with increasingly desperate technological weapons, including rationed coal supplies and some pretty exotic genetic engineering experiments.

What makes these futures so hard to think about? Some people, at least, are talking about them. We need to further this discussion. On the other hand, this does not necessarily mean that a steady state economy will necessarily work. Here are some possible objections, some of which she hints at but none of which are explicitly discussed in her article:

1. A steady state economy is impossible, because the sustainable level is so low that at such a level, “economic policy” would no longer be possible. Population control is indispensable to a steady state economy, but in a more primitive world, how could it be enforced? Would it not require a level of control which would imply an intensified savagery? Are humans smarter than yeast? This is a great difficulty, and it is quite possible that a steady state economy would fail. Whether it would necessarily fail, though, is not clear.

2. A steady state economy is impossible, because the sustainable level is so low that it is politically impossible to advocate such an economy. In other words, even if it is technically possible, the general public is not going to listen to our ideas. This is true in early 2011, but it is clear that the ideas of “peak oil” and the “energy descent” are, in political terms, a true growth economy. What about Transition, what about the Post-Carbon Institute, what about Tverberg’s own blog? This was barely even thinkable a decade ago. Sooner or later, this is going to progress to the point of political feasibility, and by talking about it and clarifying these ideas now, we can help bring it about later — perhaps in a century, perhaps in just a decade or two.

3. A steady state economy is possible, but the path of decline is so lengthy and arduous, and reaching the sustainable level lies so far in the future, that it is not practical to discuss. Put another way, this path of decline is so lengthy and arduous, that we need to pay more attention to the path itself rather than the final destination. But if we don’t have an idea of what the final destination is, we won’t be able to formulate coherent policies for the path to that destination, either. Moreover, the financial system will probably collapse first, bringing us forcefully and quickly much closer to “sustainability” than anyone today imagines possible.

4. A steady state economy is possible, but the Center for the Steady State Economy (CASSE) is obscuring the fact that it will only work at a very primitive level and giving rise to unduly optimistic expectations. But this is not an objection to the concept of a steady state economy, just that way it is being promoted.

From where I’m sitting, I don’t find this to be valid.  There are a wide variety of people involved in some way in the organization, and a variety of opinions expressed on what a “sustainable” level would be.  There are a couple of fans of Derrick Jensen in the CASSE discussion group; Jensen seems to believe that industrial civilization is incompatible with life.  CASSE seems to be quite open to a variety of views as to the physical level at which the steady state economy would exist.  If anyone doesn’t like the way CASSE is doing things, they should work to change CASSE or form their own organization. In any event, it has no logical relevance to the feasibility of a steady state economy.

It’s not necessarily the case that a steady state economy is possible; this point is arguable. However, if we truly believe that a steady state economy can never happen, then why blog at all? What kinds of actions would then be appropriate? Perhaps humans will never be smarter than yeast, and that we can consequently give up hope of changing humanity in the long term, and simply hope to alleviate our own pain and the pain of innocent creatures closest to us in the period of time remaining to humanity.

A catastrophic industrial collapse is not the worst thing that could happen to humans. There may be a “fate worse than death” here (death of our industrial system, that is), and that could be a gradual decline. If we were able to cope with decline somehow, this would quite possibly mean that we would burn most or all the fossil fuels we can, including all the coal and oil, and much of the tar sands. We would then be looking at a runaway greenhouse effect, either to the level of a massive extinction along the lines of the Permian-Triassic, or to a Venus-like atmosphere and the permanent extinction of all life on earth.

We need effective and collective action. We cannot remain at the level of isolated communities at a lesser scale. “Doomer porn” is good for us because it wakes us up to the need to do something, but we can’t remain at that level if we want to take effective action. Those who still think there’s hope need to think about where our best chances lie, and it’s clear that this is in the general direction of something like a steady state economy.

(slightly revised March 10)

2 thoughts on “Is a Steady State Economy Possible?

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